It can be tough to get your children to develop good brushing habits at a young age. Most try to avoid this routine task. They don’t realize that routine toothbrushing is easy, has great benefits – and can even be fun.
Creating and sustaining good habits doesn’t have to be so difficult. Here are seven ways – based on research around habit formation - to help your children develop good tooth brushing habits, and make them stick:
1. Start Ridiculously Small
Most people want to create big change as quickly as possible. They want their kids to brush twice a day, for 2 minutes each time, and brush correctly.
The problem, is that this requires a lot of willpower, which kids don’t always have. Even the most conscientious child is likely to fall short, get discouraged and quit trying.
The solution is to start so small that it hardly requires any willpower at all. Here’s a five week plan consisting of small steps that you can use to help your child develop a strong tooth brushing habit:
Week 1 – Have them tell you (at the appropriate times) when they should brush. You can say “breakfast is over, what do we do next?” or “you’ve put your pajamas on, what do we do now?”
Week 2 - Have them simply be ready in the bathroom at the appropriate times (without asking), so you can help them brush.
Week 3 – Have them add the correct amount of toothpaste to their brush.
Week 4 - Instead of brushing for two full minutes – have your child start with 30 seconds – with you helping them finish up.
Week 5 – Set a timer so that they can practice brushing for the full 2 minutes.
There you go! Without much effort or frustration, you’ve helped them develop a great tooth brushing habit. Always focus on establishing the smaller steps to achieving the habit behavior first, and don’t increase the effort before it has become a natural part of what they do every day.
2. Get Them Invested in the Habit
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to let go of a project when you’ve invested a lot of effort into it - and you can see the effort?
Seinfeld used this method to become a better comic by writing a new joke every day. Each time he completed his writing for the day, he put a big red X on his calendar. Within a few days, he had a chain he didn’t want to break.
This is a clever strategy you can use to help your child create a visual reminder of how much effort they’ve invested in your tooth brushing habit. You'll likely find that the longer the chain grows, the harder they will try to keep it going.
So, post a tooth brushing chart on the bathroom wall (Pinterest has at least 100 to choose from), put a marker next to it, and let your child put a big star on the chart when they’ve completed their toothbrushing task for the day. Remind them not break the star chain!
3. Have Clear Intentions
If you’re serious about building your child’s tooth brushing habit, vague intentions like “I want you to brush twice a day” or “you don’t want cavities, do you?” won’t cut it.
Research has shown that people are much more likely to follow through with a habit if they’ve decided, beforehand, exactly when the new behavior is going to take place. One way is to set up a sequence of actions that always result in your child brushing at the same time each day.
Here are two suggestions:
Create a “brushing intention.” Reframe their tooth brushing habit as an “If/ Then” statement. For example, “If you’ve finished your breakfast, then it’s time to go into the bathroom and brush your teeth.”
Use “habit stacking.” Link their tooth brushing habit to an already existing behavior. Try this one: “After you put on your pajamas, it’s time to brush your teeth”
4. Celebrate Your Small Wins
If you’re like most people, you’re much better at beating yourself up for a bad performance than rewarding yourself for a good one. And that’s a shame because research has shown that celebrating your progress is crucial for self-motivation.
Instead of being frustrated each time your child forgets to brush, praise and celebrate every step in the right direction. This will activate the reward circuitry in their brain, allowing them to experience feelings of achievement and pride, and empowering them to take action and create bigger successes in the future.
5. Design Their Brushing Environment
In many ways, our environment drives our behavior. Do you habitually eat a donut in the break room just because it’s there? Yep - me too.
A habit requires a certain amount of energy to get done. And the more “activation” energy it needs, the less likely we are to follow through with it. In other words, if that donut isn’t there, I’m not going to go out and buy one. That’s too hard.
Here’s how you can make it really easy for your child to routinely brush:
Put a reminder note in their room and the bathroom with the “If/Then statement” (If breakfast is over, it’s time to brush my teeth), or the “habit stacking” statement (After I put on my pajamas, it’s time to brush my teeth).
Set their toothbrush, toothpaste and rinse on the bathroom counter next to their brushing chart.
Make it fun – have the toothpaste they like, a child-sized toothbrush, and some tasty fluoride rinse. Some silly brushing music may also help.
By making toothbrushing easy, you can nudge them in the right direction.
6. Surround Yourself with Supporters
The people around us have a surprisingly big impact on our behavior. Research shows that we tend to feel the same way, and adopt the same goals, as the people we spend the most time with. So join them in the bathroom after breakfast to brush your teeth, or ask an older sibling, who has developed a great brushing habit, to brush with them at night.
7. Pre-Commit to Toothbrushing
By pre-committing to something, we add an extra layer of accountability that makes us push through with the habit, even when it’s hard. If we’ve told everyone we’re going the gym after work, aren’t we more likely follow through?
Here are some ways to get commitment from your child to brush:
During breakfast, ask them to tell you what they need to do as soon as they finish cereal, and before they get dressed.
At night, ask them what they need to do after they put on their pajamas and before they say “goodnight”.
Ask them to write a note to themself and post it on their bathroom wall declaring publicly that they’re going to brush twice a day, every day.
If your child made a commitment to brush, skipping brushing won’t be such an appealing option.
Forming new habits can be hard, but there are plenty of ways to make the process more manageable. The great news is, once a strong brushing habit has been formed and reinforced, it can be just as hard to break as a bad habit! Stick with it, and you'll help your child achieve healthy teeth and gums for life.